Boggs puts head over heart as he makes his pick for the team to bring down the Roman empire: United may have the Premiershipâ€™s most successful manager (for now), the money to spend on players and (errâ€¦for now), of course, Wayne Rooney. Arsenal may have the Premiershipâ€™s second most successful manager, Thierry Henry in his prime, and a host of young talent that rival any of Europeâ€™s top clubs. But the Liverpool are easily my pick as the first club who will win the league from Chelsea in the Roman era.
Iâ€™m not saying Chelsea will give up their title this season, or even next, but it will happen at some point and when it does it will be the current European Champions who do it. Hereâ€™s five reasons why:
1) Benitez is Mourinho. In purely footballing terms, of course. Both managers are young, talented, but more importantly smart and ambitious enough to prioritize simply winning football matches and little else. Jose may get a little loose lipped in the press every now and then, but even his sound bytes are intended to have a tactical effect by putting the pressure on himself rather than his players. Even their achievements line up in eerily similar fashion, Rafa and Jose are two of just three managers who have won the UEFA cup followed by the Champions League the next season. They won the Spanish and Portugese leagues respectively before jumping to more prestigious clubs the next season, where they won major trophies at the first attempt. They are also both known for breaking up long-standing two-horse races for the league (Real-Barca in Spain, United-Arsenal in England). And their rivalry is blossoming quite nicely.
2) Heâ€™s done it before. Rafa took Valencia, a club with less money and less prestige than Liverpool, and simply dominated the Spanish league. Barcelona and Real Madrid have always been prone to letting the odd club pop in for a title win, but Benitezâ€™s tenure at the Mestalla was the first time that a club actually looked like replacing the two clubs at the top for more than a year. They earned the nickname â€˜The Crushing Machineâ€™ because of the simple, effective way they went about beating their opponents. No fanfare, just points. (Sounds familiar)
3) Rafa knows his shit. If Benitez sees something that isnâ€™t working, he adjusts. Last season he stuck mainly to the 4-5-1 formation he was used to using in Spain and the results were pretty predictable (in hindsight, of course). Effective in Europe – not dynamic enough for the Premiership (at least to win it). This season weâ€™re seeing him play two striker more often, the arrival of Peter Crouch helping no end as the second striker can still drop deep to help defend in numbers as Rafa likes, knowing that Crouch can hold the long ball up for a counter attack (Sounds familiar). After failing to lure any of his first choice targets to play on the wing â€“ heâ€™s shifted Steven Gerrard to the right to accommodate both Xabi Alonso and Sissoko/Hamann in the centre of the park.
At first glance, it seemed to be a Sven-esque move that would make poor use of Stevie Gâ€™s talents but itâ€™s proving the opposite. In the center of the park Gerrard had every responsibility possible and was expected to dominate in attack and defense – leading to a split focus. The wing, however, is a position naturally laden with less defensive duties which allows him to focus on pushing forward. His natural instinct to be a team player means heâ€™s not shirking his defensive responsibilities, there just isnâ€™t as much emphasis in order for the team to succeed. Gerrard has been given freedom to roam and destroy his opponents further up the pitch, safe in the knowledge that he has two deeper lying central midfielders to protect him. (Sounds familiar) The proof is in the pudding, as they say, although that doesnâ€™t really make much sense in this context. But after a shaky start Liverpool are looking more and more like a Benitez team. A club record 10 successive clean sheets and top of the Premiership form book, I feel a lot less awkward referring to the club as European Champions.
4) Liverpool can spend. At Valenica, Rafa was hindered by a relatively small transfer budget (think mid-table Premiership) but also by meddling Directorâ€™s of Football who bought players he…err…didnâ€™t rate to say the least. At Liverpool, he has the backing of arguably the most patient and understanding board for a club of such ambition, as well as a sizable transfer budget each year. They may not be able to make the blockbuster signings that United and Chelsea can, but he certainly has more than enough at his disposal. Benitez has shown his willingness to adapt in the transfer market as well, last season he stuck to what he knew and surrounded himself with Spaniards. But â€“ Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso aside â€“ there was little return. The likes of Josemi, Mauricio Pellegrino, Nunez or even Fernando Morientes proved a bit of a bust and 3 of the 4 have been sold or are nowhere to be seen. This season, Rafa made just three significant signings in Peter Crouch, Jose Reina and Sissoko but all three are proving key players already. No winger or centre back yet, but this was more likely due to lack of available targets than lack of spending power. Expect that to change very soon.
5) Gerrard is bloody incredible. Not much else to say, really. When you have a team built around defensive solidity and discipline, you need a player who you can rely on to make things happen with the ball at his feet. Right now there are few better.
So, with apologies to Paul Jewell and Wigan, Iâ€™ve got to pick Benitez as the man to eventually knock Mourinho and Chelsea down a peg (although Iâ€™m sure my Spurs will be the first Premiership club to actually sign a Abramovich player for more than he paid for them).